In response to a comment from 2nd year physics grad student Becky:
Random question - You have very good confidence in your abilities. Some of your commenters seem to take offense at this, but I think it's a highly useful trait to have as a scientist.
I, on the other hand, feel like a moron everyday. How did you develop such a positive attitude about yourself?
Here are my thoughts on this. But I'm going to start with instructions to mentors, and then move onto instructions for students.
3 things for mentors to do:
1. Encourage small accomplishments early and often
The people who trained me early on showed me how to do everything. They were patient with letting me practice until I got things right, but they supervised me until that happened. And then they said, "Just like that. Good job."
It doesn't take that much to see if the student is following directions and executing steps correctly, but it really helps to give that confirmation and validation that the effort is appreciated and noticed.
2. Give independence in gradually increasing amounts
I was allowed to be pretty independent in the lab pretty early on. I loved this about lab.
I grew up with very little personal freedom and really controlling parents. According to my parents, I was Stupid, I was Lazy, I was Ugly, I was Fat, etc. I was always scrambling trying to please them, which I would later realize was impossible anyway.
In school, I was Student. It was a role we all played. Show up, take notes, maybe ask a question if you're feeling brave. Go home, do homework, pass tests. Check.
In lab, I was suddenly Person. I was treated more like an adult than ever before, and I was amazed. I could come in, do my thing, maybe show someone my results before I left, maybe even get a "Good job!" and then go home. Eventually I would finish whatever I was doing and be taught a new task.
I liked the idea that eventually I would learn enough tasks to be able to work longer and longer without having to ask anyone anything.
I realized later that this was probably pretty unusual. I worked in small labs and big labs, but the people who trained me were, with no exceptions I can think of, both remarkably rigorous and extremely generous with their time.
Nowadays, I don't see this very often. I regularly see poorly trained postdocs training students poorly; I regularly see grad students flailing in the wind because they have no one to ask and no idea what they're doing. It's no wonder grad students lack confidence in that kind of environment.
Trust me when I tell you, the good labs are NOT like that. They're hard to find, though.
3. Quit biting their heads off
Recently, I've been involved in mentoring students in other labs. These students find me, and maybe they don't even tell their advisor I've been helping them out. In every single case, at some point their advisor blows up at them.
The reasons an advisor might yell at a student include but are not limited to:
-advisor is crazy/stressed out and it has nothing to do with the student
-advisor made a mistake but would rather lash out than admit it
-student was flaky (irresponsible and/or passive-aggressive rebellion)
-student was willfully disobedient (some PIs can deal with this when it is justified; some can't no matter what the reason)
-student made a mistake on something important
But it's really only the last one that I want to talk about today.
Students often make one major mistake: they don't always ask for help. This pisses us older folks off, because we interpret it as meaning any or all of the following:
-student is arrogant and doesn't think we know anything worthwhile
-student is embarrassed to be asking, which means we're too intimidating (not a good thing, we blame ourselves when this happens)
-student is so clueless that they don't even know to ask, which means we've been sucky mentors (not a good thing, we blame ourselves when this happens)
Sometimes it's really really hard to keep your calm when a student makes an otherwise totally avoidable mistake. Especially if they could have asked you and didn't, and you're not sure why.
However. In our role as mentors, we have to recognize that Every. Single. Time. you blow up at a student, especially a new student, it is probably our own fault.
I'll say that again. It's YOUR fault, mentors. YOU NEED TO KEEP YOUR CALM. They're just students, they can't really be expected to know as much as you. Get it?
Now, having said that, I've had students who were such bleeping hothouse flowers they couldn't take any kind of criticism. No matter how gently put, if I told them they did something wrong or needed to do something over again, they would just freeze up.
I've tried "Here, you want to avoid that because of XYZ, try it this way." Nope, too sensitive for that.
Or, "Okay, so that's not quite right, next time I'll show you what I want you to do differently." Nope, too sensitive for that too.
You know, they tend to be the straight-A types. I don't know what to do with them. I tend to think science is not the place for people who can't deal with making mistakes and getting honest feedback on their performance.
3 things for students to do:
1. Buck up, cowgirl
If you're not used to criticism, get used to it. Those of us who played on sports teams or did any kind of competitive performing arts are used to being given feedback with few frills attached.
The trick is, and I'm going to say this in all caps, IT'S NOT PERSONAL.
Okay? Get it? It's about your work, it's not about you. We're not saying you're not good enough, we're saying "Here's how you do it."
It's instruction, it's feedback, it's not that we think you're stupid or incapable.
The good mentors know that you can't possibly know these things unless we teach you, show you, and let you practice and ask questions. That's our job. Your job is to keep trying until you get it right. Even if we tell you over and over all the little ways you can improve. We really do want to see you succeed at everything you do. But we understand that research involves an awful lot of falling on your face. All of us were grad students once, too.
2. If you're not sure, Look it up, and Then Ask
Eventually, we want you to get to the point where you can look things up and then decide for yourself whether the answers you find in the literature or via google make any sense or not. Half the time, they're probably wrong. But by the time you're 2 years into grad school, you should be able to look things up on your own without too much effort (thank you, internet).
If for some reason you can't find what you need in the lab protocol book or on the internet, or if what you find there makes no sense, then ask us.
If you don't take notes, or don't try to look things up, or don't ask in an intelligent way ("Hey, I'm trying to do X, I'm not sure how to do Y, would you have time to show me? When would be a good time?") eventually we will get annoyed with your laziness and disrespect and we will treat you the same way in return.
Some of us will give you references instead of helping you because we can't stand talking to disrespectful, ungrateful students.
Others will just plain talk down to you. There are two ways of dealing with those types.
1) Look things up on your own (and find other people to ask)
2) Get upset.
I recommend choice #1. People still talk to me like I'm an idiot on a regular basis. And eventually I realized that those types talk to everyone that way. I realized it's not me, it's them. Use this as your mantra when you're being treated like a moron.
Note: students usually feel like morons when they're treated like morons. It may have nothing whatsoever to do with your actual abilities and everything to do with the people around you being jerks.
3. Whatever you do, don't guess
Nothing pisses us off more than when students are too lazy to either look things up or ask.
The central principle of research, as far as I can tell, is knowing what you know and what you don't knowm, and then figuring out how to fill in what you don't know.
This is true at all levels. PIs regularly make assumptions about what we know, and we're wrong All. The Time. The same is true for students. You might think you know more than you do, but more often than not, students think they know nothing. You are not alone in feeling that way.
I always say it's like learning a foreign language. At the beginning, you work on comprehension. You can read the words, you know what they mean. You hear the words, you know what they mean. But you're shy about speaking the language yourself. You don't have the accent. It's harder to use it than to understand it.
So yeah, it's rough at first, doing your own research independently. You will make mistakes. You will feel uncertain. Probably for a long time. That's OK. Your data should be telling you if you're on the right track.
If nothing is working, it helps to find people to mentor you (not in the vague MentorNet sense of the word). I mean people who are willing to answer your day-to-day questions about how to do things.
Later on, even if my questions were just, "I'm going to try this now, do you think it will work?" knowing full well that their answers might have no correlation with the outcome.
It still gave me more confidence, just to have said out loud "I'm going to try this now." And sometimes I got good advice that way before I made stupid mistakes. As you go along, you'll find the ratio of times they're right: times you're right shifts. At the beginning, they're usually right and you're usually wrong. By the end, you'll be right more often than they are.
I was lucky that I had people like this for most of my career, who were willing to let me bounce ideas off them, and willing to admit it when I was right (though not always).
When I reached the end of grad school and I didn't have anyone to help me in the lab, I realized I didn't need it anymore. Not in that lab, anyway, where I actually knew how to do everything our lab did (!). Sometimes you don't realize this until a new person joins and you start seeing them making all the same mistakes you made.
And if you become a postdoc, or start a new job, or a new project, the cycle starts over again. You ask stupid questions for a while, you feel bad having to ask but now you know it's part of the process. And then you go do some experiments on your own. Training wheels are off.
Eventually, you realize that when you're really doing research, NO ONE KNOWS THE RIGHT ANSWER. There an incredible freedom in that. All you can do, all anyone can do, is come up with a hypothesis, and then test it. But that's not the same as guessing.
You'll know you're there when you can design, execute and interpret experiments on your own. Even if someone tells you, before you even start doing it, that you're doing it all wrong. When you do it anyway, that's confidence. Even if you're not always right. Do the test.